A while ago I was sitting on the bleachers hanging with my 4 year old watching my other 2 sons (8 and 6) at their soccer practice. It was early Fall and getting just a bit cool, the temperature was maybe in the low 60’s with a very slight wind. Certainly nothing too brutal, but as I glanced around at the other parents I noticed something. They were all freezing. It wasn’t yet winter so no one was wearing winter coats, they were still trying to get by with their summer clothes. I saw Moms and their kids huddled up under thin blankets and light jackets as though it was 40 degrees outside. I had just done some sprints so I was reasonably comfortable in a T-shirt and shorts. I has also been taking cold showers for 9 months straight and I had become pleasantly aware of how that process had improved my previously piss-poor cold tolerance (many eons ago on a white water rafting trip in Alaska during the summer that was gentle enough for grandmas and little kids, I was the one that started to lose circulation in my hands so my cold tolerance was not the stuff of legends).
Back to the story. In short, I looked around at everybody and thought “what a bunch of pansies – it isn’t cold, it is all in your head” but as I had that thought I realized I have heard the same argument about overtraining – It doesn’t exist, it is all in your head. I realized we might be able to learn something, or at least gain some perspective, if we look at overtraining in the same vein as one looks at cold tolerance. Just to be explicit, I am not an expert on cold tolerance but I don’t believe that is necessary for this analogy to work.
First, let’s ask a few questions; Is there such a thing as being too cold? In other words, could you actually damage yourself by being too cold? Secondly, is cold tolerance “all in your head”? Third, can we have any effect on our own cold tolerance or is it just a static thing and is it unchangeable?
I think we can all agree that it is possible to be too cold. Hypothermia and frost-bite are real things. Ask any top level mountain climber or survival expert and they will confirm there are serious dangers with prolonged exposure to a truly cold environment, so yes, you can damage yourself by being too cold, and that damage can range from a minor injury to frostbite all the way up to death. Secondly, is cold tolerance just in your head? Clearly frost bite and death are not “just in our head” so we can’t say that cold tolerance is just in one’s head. Third, can we have any effect on our own cold tolerance? Here we have good news – you can have a very large effect on how you tolerate the cold. Quite simply you need exposure to cold at some level to become accustomed to it. You have probably experienced someone used to warm temperatures complaining about how “brutal” the weather was when to you it was mild, and at the same time having someone from up North comment about how the weather you think is rough really isn’t rough at all. When researchers want to go to the Artic they have get used to the cold – one of the main ways they do this is by taking increasingly cold (and increasingly long) showers and baths. That repeated exposure to the cold water builds up their tolerance to cold temperatures. The take home point is that cold tolerance, like many biological phenomenons, is not a static thing but it is dynamic and will change over time.
Let’s re-examine my situation. It was low 60 degrees outside, slight wind, early evening. Soccer practice is 90 minutes long. I think it is safe to say that no one was going to get frostbite or receive any physical damage from being outside for that period of time, even with minimal protective clothing. As such the way those outside dealt with being cold was indeed, all in their head. They could put it out of their mind and focus on something else, or they could obsess about it and have the cold dominate their thoughts.
I believe we can look at training, and thus the idea of overtraining, in a similar fashion. We can ask the same questions – can you actually damage yourself by training too much? Is the idea of overtraining all in your head? Is your ability to tolerate training changeable or not?
First, to be clear, overtraining does exist. It exists on both an acute level (one specific session) and on a chronic level (over a long period of time). Symptoms of overtraining run from very minor (being just a bit sore) to somewhat serious (significant tendinitis or a stress fracture) to extremely serious and possibly leading to death (rhabdomyolysis). Accept the fact that it is possible for humans to overwork themselves, possibly even to their death. Acknowledging that fact doesn’t mean you are a wimp, it means you are smart.
Second, is the idea of overtraining all in your head? No, as we just mentioned, it is a real phenomenon. But that doesn’t mean your mental approach to training isn’t important. If you are one of the strongest and hardest working people in your gym, it is logical to say “gee, I am working harder than anybody else here, I wonder if I am overtraining?” But what if you went to Westside Barbell Club or Supertraining Gym or the Olympic Training Center or anywhere were elite athletes were really pushing themselves. Would you still look around and think you were working harder than anybody else?
Third (and most important) – is your ability to tolerate training changeable? Here the answer is an absolute yes. Humans are extremely adaptable to all sorts of things including physical stress. This actually should be obvious. We can build up our tolerance to all sorts of things, but because we know now that it is just not all in our head, we also know it is silly to rush into a super brutal workout, just like I would not jump into the 4th month of a cold exposure treatment for someone heading to the artic. You must gradually build up your exposure to that type of stress. This is what the principle of specificity and the principle of overload are all about.
The most common follow up question by lifters is “well, what workout program should I do now?” and because we now know that your ability to adapt to stress is individual, it makes answering this question in this format more challenging. Most people reading this, on this blog, are likely past the beginner stage and the thus the answer of: ‘more than a beginner’ is probably sound. Most people reading this are likely not at Dimtry Klokov’s level and so the answer of: ‘less than what he is doing’ likely also applies. I realize that isn’t particularly satisfying. Most programs will start lifters out with a workload coaches feel confident they will be able to handle, and then they gradually increase the necessary parameters (volume, intensity, workload, etc) over time to cause the desired adaptations. The goal is to do this without venturing too deep into the overtraining zone.
Honesty forces me to finish this article with a less than ideal point, but such is life. Cold tolerance, once built, is not permanent. If one does not continue their exposure to the cold, they lose that cold tolerance over time. Fitness levels and ability to handle training volumes are also not permanent, as we all likely know. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I mentioned that I had taken cold showers for 9 months straight and it really improved my cold tolerance. I stopped taking them and my cold tolerance has gone down. In fact, I am writing this in my basement in the winter (on a snow day no less) where it is about low 60 degrees and I am shivering huddled under a thin blanket. Go ahead, you can call me that.